The Spratly Islands are small. In fact, this remote archipelago is just a collection of rocky islets, atolls, and reefs scattered across the southern reaches of the South China Sea. The Spratlys are so barren and barely above sea level that they could not support permanent settlements until recently. The Spratlys lack arable land, freshwater supplies, and apparent natural resources. The Spratlys seem unlikely contenders to make world headlines.
Yet the Spratlys’ diminutive physical stature belies their outsized role in international relations and geopolitics. In actuality, the islands are pivotal in a strategic rivalry between the surrounding countries of Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, as well as countries farther afield including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States. The crux of the deepening dispute involves conflicting claims of sovereignty over the Spratlys among the littoral countries and freedom of navigation through the region more generally. In that sense, the quarrel over the Spratlys resembles a typical territorial dispute where governments disagree on the borderlines between their jurisdictions.
Yet in this case, the actual prize is not territory. Rather, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) grants countries sovereignty over territorial waters extending twelve nautical miles out and the right to establish an exclusive economic zone stretching two hundred nautical miles outward from each sovereign landmass. It is not ownership of the Spratlys that is coveted but rather control over the surrounding waters, which include productive fisheries and potentially significant, but undocumented, undersea oil and gas deposits. The Spratlys dispute has also inflamed domestic public opinion and nationalist fervor, complicating efforts for the relevant governments to compromise without appearing to lose face. The Spratlys also sit astride some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Given that, control over each speck of land can be leveraged to assert control and privileges over prime maritime real estate and airspace with implications for economic development, geopolitical rivalries, and domestic politics. This further highlights how the world remains very bordered. In fact, the beginning of the 21st century has seen growing attention directed toward marking out maritime sovereignty, most notably in the Arctic, Antarctic, Oceania, and, of course, the South China Sea.
The rival claimants to the Spratlys base their arguments on a mixture of history, geography, and international law. These arguments are highly selective and reflect parochial national interests. Thankfully, this international jostling has generally unfolded through relatively mundane actions, such as air and sea patrols, scientific expeditions, and the erection of monuments and flagpoles marking the limits of de facto control. Unfortunately, these rather symbolic steps have occasionally escalated into testy diplomatic exchanges, military shows of force, the establishment of military outposts, and even deadly skirmishes.
The dispute settled into a stable, if unresolved, status quo with claimants exercising de facto control over portions of the archipelago while denying competing claims. The situation took a dramatic turn during 2013 when the Philippines began legal proceedings challenging China’s so-called “nine-dash line” that claimed most of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys. An UNCLOS arbitration tribunal concluded in 2016 that China’s claims lacked legal merit but left unresolved the underlying issue of rightful ownership. China rejected the ruling, so the tribunal did little to change the situation. These varied actions and reactions highlight how borders can be thought of a process in which function and meaning are continually made and remade.
Whether coincidental or not, China launched large-scale dredging operations at several locations in the Spratlys by the end of 2013. These operations served several objectives. First, the dredging created port facilities to accommodate larger ships. Second, the excavated sand was encased within retaining walls to raise and expand adjacent landmasses. Finally, this reclaimed land ultimately solidified into new artificial islets that are rapidly transforming into military installations.
Some of these former reefs are now permanent islets supporting military bases with long-range aircraft and anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile batteries, as well as auxiliary facilities to support permanent garrisons. The novel combination of land reclamation and military-infrastructure construction is suggestive of borders operating as a form of political technology influencing international relations and domestic politics.
Combined with similar projects in the Paracel Islands to the north, China has acquired an unrivaled presence across the South China Sea. Yet these developments prompted rival claimants to undertake similar projects. The United States has also made a point of commencing regular freedom of navigation missions to affirm its position that these are international waters and airspace.
The Spratlys appear poised to play an outsized role in jockeying for influence in Southeast Asia and across the broader Indo-Pacific region. International cooperation aimed at the development of natural resources could help build trust and erode the zero-sum mentalities informing so much decision-making regarding the Spratlys. Beyond resource extraction, environmental tourism offers a foundation for longer-term sustainable development, but large-scale dredging and construction could disrupt the region’s sensitive and unique ecosystems.
And even here, the fledgling tourism industry in the Spratlys often unfolds within the subtext of normalizing territorial claims. Government-sponsored tour groups featuring flag raising ceremonies and other patriotic celebrations, promulgated through social media and nationalist media outlets, as well as the patrols of prominently flagged ships and aircraft, are in different ways types of performances. They flag, literally and figuratively, government policy toward territorial and maritime sovereignty.
The Spratlys are a peculiar archipelago but simultaneously illustrate how borders manifest through the dynamic interplay between varied spatial processes, performances, and technologies. The Spratlys are also rather remote and inaccessible but simultaneously increasingly central to international relations and geopolitical strategy throughout the Indo-Pacific region. These trends show few signs of abating.
Featured Image credit: The USS John S. McCain conducts a routine patrol in the South China Sea, Jan. 22, 2017 by Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class James Vazquez, United States Navy. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.